FOCUSED PROGRAM: Adaptive Learning Systems
Potential for U.S. Economic Benefit. An educated, skilled citizenry is essential to economic competitiveness. Accordingly, the United States spends more than $608 billion annually on education and training. Yet achievement levels do not always meet expectations, and some segments of society lack access to education and training resources. U.S. eighth-graders rank only on par with, or below, their peers in other G7 nations on standard science and math tests. Formal training reaches only 10 percent of the American work force, a particular problem for small and medium-scale enterprises, which expend fewer resources on training than do large firms and yet still seek to attract and retain skilled workers.
Many past efforts to enhance the effectiveness of education and training programs have pointed to the value of information technology. Students and workers alike perform better when using information technology. Students become more engaged in the learning process, and communication increases between students and teachers and among students. Information technology can provide new and powerful learning experiences, tailored to the needs of the learner, that go far beyond traditional classroom/teacher models. In addition, information technology potentially can reduce the time and cost required to produce and distribute educational contenteducational materials can be more accessible to more people. Information technologies that promote learning can be a wise investmentand a promising means of attaining long-sought achievement levels.
A little progress has been made. Some instructional multimedia software is commercially available. On-line service providers have targeted K-12 markets and, more recently, adult learners. Telecommunications companies, state governments, and cable television providers have invested in information technology for educational applications, but mostly in telecommunications resources rather than software and content support. Software publishers also are beginning to pay more attention to educational markets.
These technologies are severely limited. Most are static, single-point answers to a single need. They are difficult to scale or adapt to large and diverse learner communities. Content and "courseware" are rigid, not designed for reuse. Knowledge management and search tools are wholly inadequate for all but the most superficial uses. Many educational technologies are high in cost, low in reliability, and difficult to adapt to special usability needs. Better use of information technology, including the Web and other networks, could reach more learners with educational material tailored precisely to their needs.
The markets for instructional software and multimedia educational content are still emerging, with few recognized standards and no dominant players. In short, the industry is not yet mature enough to propel the dramatic educational changes expected from learning technologies. The central challenge is to take full advantage of these technologies to make learning more affordable, available, and precisely tailored to the needs of both learners and educators. These are the most important issues to be addressed in extending our national information infrastructure to serve the purpose of education.
The focused program on Adaptive Learning Systems supports high-risk research to accelerate development of this infrastructure. Adaptive learning systems emphasize:
By harnessing the potential of learning technologies for education and training, the United States would benefit in many ways. The costs of producing and disseminating educational content would drop. The user community for instructional systems would expand and become more diverse. Distributed instructional systems would be manageable and provide a high quality of service. Learning performance and workplace productivity would increase. Training and learning would become more accessible than ever before, to the benefit of workers in small and medium-scale enterprises and others in need.
In addition, a robust industry in learning technologies is on the horizon. An ATP-commissioned study by Nathan Associates predicts that, conservatively, sales of instructional software could exceed $42 billion by the year 2005. More optimistic projections place the figure much higher, in excess of $142 billion. Because learning technologies cut across many sectors and applications, technical innovation can fuel the expansion of many product markets ranging from executive decision systems to K-12 curriculum. Small and medium-scale enterprises could be among those benefiting from the increased economic activity if they produce or market the new products. Significant interest and growth abroad in both learning technologies and information networks suggest that adaptive learning systems also could become a valuable export, building on U.S. world leadership in software, systems integration, and higher education.
Technology Challenge and Industry Commitment. Both the public and private sectors stand to benefit from enhanced learning performance, and a vast storehouse of technologies that could support learning is available. However, commercial solutions remain elusive. Many technologies swiftly incorporated into computer games and entertainment could apply equally to instruction, yet learning technologies have reached the market much more slowly. Entertainment, publishing, and broadcasting companies, and other potential developers and producers of instructional software, have shown minimal interest in the underlying work needed to develop learning technologies.
Several factors are at work. The cost and complexity of producing instructional software and systems is prohibitive (except for certain narrow applications, such as selected childrens software.) Educational software and systems are not easily usable for many learners and educators, and for that matter present obstacles for educational institutions. Educational systems are increasingly interactive and difficult to manage at the institutional level. While this problem is not unique to educational markets, it presents an unusually high barrier given the skills and organizational dynamics of todays education and training organizations. The necessary business models and key transactions that enable the missions of knowledge-driven institutions are not yet adapted to computers and distributed systems. Equally problematic: educational networks do not yet offer sufficiently high reliability to become a viable alternative to many educational media, such as desktop systems or traditional classroom techniques. In the current environment, end users will have to wait some time yet until many technological advances such as virtual reality and distributed simulation become preferred tools among trainers and educators.
The Adaptive Learning Systems focused program tackles these issues through enabling technologies that ultimately will support flexible, network-basedespecially Web-basedlearning systems: intelligent authoring systems to reduce the cost and time to market educational content; knowledge management and multisensory interface technologies to improve the delivery of instructional content, when and where needed, in the most useful form; large-scale modular components, instructional frameworks and middleware to support a highly usable, reliable networked learning environment that includes the special transactions needed for training and education.
The program emphasizes comprehensive infrastructure solutions that are both flexible and scalable with respect to all fundamental aspects of information network-based instruction. Four key research areas are:
Industry support is demonstrated by direct input to focused program planning, past participation in previous ATP solicitations, and market assessments. More than 48 white papers have been submitted to ATP on some aspect of learning technologies, and over 400 participants attended three workshops held to identify needs and make plans for the program.
Significance of ATP Funds. Increased private research to overcome these barriers could accelerate the development of commercial learning technologies. However, the information technology industry is taking shape around a few business trends, including a campaign for platform dominance, media convergence, and telecommunications restructuring. Competitive pressures are distracting many firms from attending to, and achieving, the long-term potential of learning technologies. As a result, research is lagging in some important areas, and some users and niche markets are being virtually ignored.
Seed investments of the sort offered by ATP may foster broad-based commercialization of learning technologies. The program will help industry determine the benefits and feasibility of specific technologies, facilitate collaboration to strengthen the research agenda, and offer a novel investment resource at a time when one is needed. The collaborative nature of ATP projects will enable industry to tap into the educational content and technology in government laboratories and higher education. Ongoing initiatives at the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense have produced a wealth of technologies that await development into practical, affordable learning tools.
The program will help industry develop technical solutions that reduce the costs of producing instructional software and systems, make educational systems easier to use, and improve manageability and quality of service levels in distributed systems. The program will complement other government activities, including the $256 million annual federal investment in training and education-related research, and state investments in the infrastructure for distance learning.
Additional Information. For information about eligibility, how to apply, and cost-sharing requirements, contact the Advanced Technology Program:
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